Raptors Fever Takes Toronto, as a Diverse City Embraces a Team That Looks Like It
- by NewYorkTimes
- June 11, 2019
TORONTO — The young men were shooting baskets near their home in a Toronto suburb on Sunday, but were happy to pause to offer a carefully considered, if partisan, analysis on the Toronto Raptors’ chances of becoming the first non-American team to win the N.B.A. championship.
“It’s Canada versus everybody,” said Nasir Tahir, 13, as he held a basketball with the Raptors’ black-and-red colors, the team logo long ago erased by the asphalt. “They’ve got it.”
“Hopefully,” he added, in a note of caution.
“Basketball has always been a big part of our lives,” said Nasir, whose parents immigrated from Pakistan.
The sport, said 13-year-old Shayan Rajput, Nasir’s cousin, is “multicultural, it includes everybody.”
Hockey may be the reigning monarch of sports in Canada, but basketball also has a grip on the country’s imagination. This season, it has been given a lift by the spectacular showing of the Raptors.
[Want more Canada coverage in your inbox? Sign up for the Canada Letter newsletter.]
The team is on the verge of winning the N.B.A. championship. The Raptors are leading the Golden State Warriors three games to two after a 105-106 loss on Monday night, and they could take the series in Game 6 on Thursday.
In Toronto and its suburbs, where about half the population consists of people of color, and many are immigrants, it is not just about the basketball. The ethnically and nationally diverse Raptors reflect Canada’s largest city in the 21st century.
“You only see white people playing hockey,” said Andrew Nguyen, 19, whose parents came to Toronto from Vietnam. “But basketball is more like what the nation is like.”
Few people outside Canada may realize it, but basketball was invented by a Canadian, James Naismith of Almonte, Ontario, although he was working at a Y.M.C.A. training school in Springfield, Mass., at the time. The N.B.A., however, did not arrive in Canada until the 1995-96 season with two teams: the Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies, in British Columbia.
At first, the Raptors struggled on the court and as a business. It didn’t help that they initially played in a cavernous domed stadium built for football and baseball. The Grizzlies did so badly that they ended up moving to Memphis, in 2001.
That’s all history now. With the rise of the Raptors this season, the team has attracted large numbers of new fans not just in Toronto but throughout Canada.
At a strip mall parking lot not far from Nasir’s house, two Palestinian immigrants who are roadside flag merchants on the weekend have observed the change, and profited from it.
Issa Mahmoud’s Chevrolet was festooned with small black flags bearing the Raptors’ logo or the team’s “We The North” slogan, clipped onto its side windows.
Last year, he said, he sold maybe five flags, at a price of five Canadian dollars. This past weekend alone, he sold about 50 for 20 dollars or more; the exact price, he explained, “is up to the customer.”
Business aside, Mr. Mahmoud, 54, said he was pleased by the Toronto area’s embrace of basketball. He grew up playing the sport on the streets of the West Bank, he said, and recalls gathering around a small black-and-white television to watch Michael Jordan play.
Yazan Awad, a 19-year-old family friend helping Mr. Mahmoud, said the social media posts of those in his circle were dominated by Raptors talk.
Would that be the case if the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have the same owners and play in the same arena as the Raptors, were now in the Stanley Cup finals?
“I don’t think so, to be honest,” he said. “Maybe a couple of them, but most people would not be as pumped as this.”
At Walter Saunders Memorial Park, in an ethnically diverse Toronto neighborhood, Jessie Rarang, a 19-year-old-son of immigrants from the Philippines, was one of about two dozen teenage boys and girls playing pickup games on a uneven, unmarked court.
“The fact that everybody is coming together to root for one thing is pretty cool,” Mr. Rarang said, of his hopes for the Raptors. “We never had that around basketball before.”
He said most people he knew preferred basketball to hockey because “not a lot of people can afford that equipment.” He said, “Basketball is a lot cheaper and easier to get into than hockey.”
Mr. Nguyen, a friend and teammate in the pickup game, which included a player with one arm, said it was not just the cost: He simply does not relate to hockey.
P. K. Subban, one of the few black players in the National Hockey League, is a proud son of Toronto. But hockey’s most prominent spokesman, the 85-year-old television commentator and former coach Don Cherry, has a history of making acerbic comments about foreign-born players, and even French Canadians, on the benches of that overwhelming white sport.
The Raptors’ “global ambassador” is the rapper Drake. He is the son of an African-American musician from Memphis and a Jewish-Canadian educator who is known for lyrics about personal emotional challenges.
John and Mario Couto, brothers whose parents emigrated from Portugal, are examples of perhaps a classic Canadian compromise, long following both the Leafs and the Raptors. They couldn’t be more delighted by the prospect that basketball could deliver the success hockey has denied the city for decades.
“I haven’t paid attention at work in over a month,” said John, a 26-year-old manager at a online grocery service. “I’ve been late, and my boss knows what it is. This is once in a lifetime.”
The top prices demanded for playoff tickets mean that few Torontoians have been able to afford to experience the Raptors’ glory in person. Their proxy is a comparatively small area outside the arena with a giant television. It’s known as Jurassic Park.
On Sunday evening about two dozen people were camped out in its holding area more than 24 hours before the game. They included one man with an inventive tent and cot combination and another, well into middle age, sleeping under a plastic poncho as traffic roared on a nearby road and an elevated expressway above.
Sam Gencher, a 19-year-old student from nearby Hamilton, Ontario, was among those waiting.
“I’m in full Raptors fan mode,” he said.
But, to pass the time, he was reading a book about hockey.
“The true Canadian spirit lies in the game of hockey,” he said, as a nearby Canadian Broadcasting Corporation crew prepared for a live report on its main nightly newscast. “As a good Canadian boy I’ve got to mix the two.”